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Mad Men and the Fear of Trading Martinis for Spreadsheets

“Now, try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology,” Joan tells new secretary Peggy Olson, showing her to a Selectric typewriter in the series opening of Mad Men. While humorous to the viewer, actual secretaries in the 1960s had a substantial learning curve when getting a new and improved typewriter. Since then, things have changed a bit.

This year’s tumultuous season of Mad Men featured an episode titled The Monolith (an allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey)– all about the intrusion of a mega computer into the advertising firm’s office.

The IBM System 360 Computer, introduced in 1964, was the first of its kind to offer a unified system of hardware and software that was adaptable for multiple purposes. According to AMC’s website, before the 360, computers were designed for specific commercial/scientific purposes only; every time the user wanted to add a new function, the computer had to be replaced. The IBM System 360 was truly revolutionary; it was the first upgradeable computer.

But not all welcomed the machine with open arms. Businesses clamored about the uncertainties of the machine: Is it accurate? Is it necessary? What does it do? Will it replace us?

Mad Men foreshadows the confusion surrounding new technology that we face even today. “This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information and that’s threatening because human existence is finite,” said the computer’s technician and advocate in the episode. What’s more intimidating than a competitive colleague who knows more than you do? A colleague-replacing computer that knows more than the whole office.

Workers in the creative side were most fearful of losing their job to technology. However, it was those working with media data who were most in danger. It’s hard to imagine technology replacing human innovation and creativity, but soon all jobs could be altered to accommodate our technological world. The top jobs in demand today weren’t even in existence a few years ago.

Thanks to today’s vast digital landscape, business models are constantly evolving; they aren’t depleting, but they are forced to adapt or die out. New technology isn’t undermining our businesses; it’s forcing them to seek a new type of human talent to work with the technology. Our operating systems will only continue to evolve and so will our job titles.

The Don Drapers of today must use all the data available. It’s no longer guesstimates from Nielsen ratings like in 1969, but accurate calculations aimed to micro-target and sift through loads of raw data. Focus groups still exist, but a dozen paper surveys handed out near a Burger Chef have turned into Google Analytics and storing every word searched on your computer.

Sales and digital analytics are no longer separate. Gone are the days of having a successful advertising executive whose sole skill is to woo clients, and gone are the days of the computer engineer being isolated into the corner of the office because today, their skills are vital to every facet of the company.

The conundrum on Mad Men was less about the fear of losing jobs, but more of contemporary concerns regarding big data analysis vs. wisdom and experience. The possibilities the IBM 360 offered were infinite, but it could only synthesize what was put in it.

Our world is changing and yesterday’s system may be outdated tomorrow. The Don Drapers of the world are dwindling, but they haven’t disappeared. They’ve just swapped the cigarette smoking with HTML coding.

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